In plans unveiled by the Deputy Prime Minister at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, universal free school meals will be provided for all Reception class, Year 1 and Year 2 children in all state-funded schools.
Ministers estimate that the proposal should save families more than £400 a year per child.
Free school meals will also be extended to disadvantaged students in further education and sixth form colleges. Currently only students in school sixth forms are eligible.
The plan has been costed at £600m but more details on the funding will follow in the Autumn statement.
Nick Clegg said, ‘My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day.
‘Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. Over the course of a year families spend over £400 lunch money for each child. I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.
‘We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits.
Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.’
The gradual introduction of universal free school meals for all primary school children was a key recommendation of the independent School Food Plan, commissioned by the Department for Education and published in July.
The report by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent found that on average school meals cost families £437 per child per year. It also highlighted that many children living in low-income families are not currently eligible for free school meals.
The authors concluded that phasing in free school meals would lead to improvements in children’s health and attainment and help families to cope with rising costs.
The review found that in pilot areas where all children were given free school meals pupils were on average two months ahead of their peers and that this was particularly evident among children from less well-off families.
At Key Stage 1 results showed that between 3 and 5 per cent more children reached the attainment target in maths and English in these areas.
Children also ate more healthily, with a 23 per cent rise in the number eating vegetables at lunchtime and an 18 per cent fall in those eating crisps.
Children’s charity 4Children said the plan was ‘good news for families’, but stressed it must not affect other areas of spending for children and families.
Chief executive Anne Longfield said, ‘Regular, nutritious meals are crucial in supporting the healthy development of children. Providing a nutritious, hot lunch for all infants in primary school promotes positive eating habits and helps to ensure that children are able to concentrate and perform well in the classroom. Importantly, helping in this way should provide some welcome relief to the finances of those families with young children who we know have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
‘Providing free school dinners for all should also get over the stigmatisation that prevented hundreds of thousands of eligible families claiming in the past – a particular problem in some of the poorest, inner city areas of England.
‘While this announcement appears to hold good news for families, it will be important to ensure that it does not negatively impact on spending in other important areas of support for children and families.’
Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive at the National Children’s Bureau, said, 'It’s encouraging that politicians have recognised the clear link between a good diet, children’s health and performance in education, which is of particular importance to low-income families who, as our recent report "Greater Expectations" showed, have poorer health, are more likely to be obese and don’t do as well in school.
'Giving every infant school pupil the right to a free school meal will provide a level playing field for all pupils and encourage them to adopt healthy eating habits later on in life.'
Some local authorities already offer free school meals. From this term children in Reception and Year One classes in Tower Hamlets and all primary school children in Southwark are eligible.
Islington Council took the decision to fund free school meals for all primary and nursery school children in 2010. More than 85 per cent of children are now taking advantage of the offer.